A View of the Rotunda and the Royal Hospital, Ranelagh Gardens from the south bank of the Thames

A View of the Rotunda and the Royal Hospital, Ranelagh Gardens from the south bank of the Thames



This view was also depicted by both Canaletto and Samuel Scott but in a more panoramic way, from slightly different viewpoints and containing different elements in the river craft and figures. The Canaletto, which bore the title "Chelsea from the Thames at Battersea Reach," was painted in 1751, was on a grand scale and measured eight feet by three. It showed from one side the greenhouse of the Physic Garden, to the other which depicted buildings to the east of the Rotunda and Ranelagh Gardens. Canaletto advertised the picture for sale in a newspaper but when no sale was concluded he apparently decided to divide the painting in half to increase the opportunity for a sale and to possibly make more money. The western half was purchased by the Marquis of Lothian for his collection at Blickling Hall in Norfolk where it remains today but now in the ownership of the National Trust who acquired the Hall in 1940. The eastern section passed through several hands, eventually being sold at Christie's in 1802. At a later date it was bought by a New York dealer who then sold it to the Cuban railway tycoon and collector Oscar Cinetas who took it to Cuba in 1951, eventually bequeathing it shortly before the Castro revolution to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. The National Trust approached the Cuban government and offered £2 million pounds for their half of the painting but were rebuffed but following the intercession of the British Council and the Foreign Office, high quality images were taken of both paintings and the original has been recreated digitally.

In Lambert's History of London and its Environs published in 1806, he writes: "Ranelagh was the seat of an Irish Nobleman of that title, in whose times the gardens were extensive. On his death the estate was sold and the principal part of the gardens was converted into fields, though the house remained unaltered. Part of the gardens also was permitted to remain. Some gentlemen and builders having become the purchasers of these, a resolution was taken to convert them into a place of entertainment. Accordingly, Mr William Jones, architect to the East India Company, drew the plan of the present Rotunda, which is an illustrious monument of his genius and fancy. The chief material employed was wood, and it was erected in 1740….a noble edifice, somewhat resembling the pantheon at Rome, with a diameter externally of 185 feet and internally of 150 feet. The entrances are by four Doric porticoes opposite each other, and the first storey is rustic. Round the whole on the outside is a gallery, the stairs to which are at the porticoes; and overhead is a slated covering which projects from the body of the Rotunda. Over the gallery are the windows, sixty in number, and over these the slated roof. The interior is elegantly decorated, and, when well illuminated and full of company, presents a most brilliant spectacle. Indeed, it may be said of Ranelagh that, as a public place of amusement, it is not to be equalled in Europe for beauty, elegance, and grandeur. Before the Act of Parliament passed in 1752, which prohibited all places of entertainment from being opened before a certain hour of the afternoon, the Rotunda was open every day for public breakfasts. It was not, however, a place of much note until it was honoured with the famous masquerades in the late reign, which brought it into vogue. But the immorality so frequently practised at masquerades has lessened their reputation and they are not now attended, as formerly, by people of rank and fashion. The entertainments consist of music and singing, and upon particular occasions fireworks also are exhibited; and during the summer season the gardens may be seen in the day-time on payment of a shilling. The price of admittance in the evening is half-a-crown, including tea and coffee, which are the only refreshments allowed, but on extraordinary occasions, the price is raised."

The Rotunda was first opened in April 1742, celebrated with a public breakfast and morning concerts followed consisting of a selection of oratorios. Sir Horace Walpole was initially rather underwhelmed and did not seem to think the experience warranted the cost of £16,000 that it cost to construct the building and lay out the gardens, asserting that the Vauxhall Gardens afforded a more pleasant experience. However, within two years he stated that he was going to the Rotunda every night, that it had eclipsed Vauxhall, saying: "Nobody goes anywhere else - everybody goes there. My Lord Chesterfield is so fond of it that he says he has ordered all his letters to be directed thither"

Following the 1752 Act, the gardens and Rotunda settled in to opening at 3.0pm with people of fashion arriving at about 5.0. The whole garden was filled with marquees and tents and in another was a maypole round which people danced. Scattered about were all sorts of musical groups and around the amphitheatre were shops selling japanned objects and china. There were booths selling tea and wine, others for gaming and areas for dancing, the whole being connected with garlands of flowers, festooned from tree to tree.

Dr Johnson said of the experience in response to the cynic's assertion that there: "…was not a half a guinea's worth of pleasure in seeing Ranelagh" the normally grave essayist's rejoinder was: "No, but there is half a guinea's worth of inferiority to other people in not having seen it.

In 1742, a foreigner gave his impression of Ranelagh Gardens which was published in the Gentleman's Magazine. "I repaired to the rendezvous, which was the park adjoining to the Palace Royal, and which answers to our Tuilleries, where we sauntered , with a handful of fine company, till it was almost twilight - a time, I thought, not a little unseasonable for a tour into the country. We had no sooner quitted the park but we found ourselves in a road full of people, illuminated with lamps on each side; the dust was the only inconvenience; but in less than half an hour we found ourselves at a gate where money was demanded, and paid for our admittance; and immediately my eyes were struck with a large building, of an orbicular figure, with a row of windows round the attic storey, through which it seemed to be liberally illuminated within, and altogether presented to the eye such an image as a man of a whimsical imagination would not scruple to call a giant's lanthorn. Into this enchanted palace we entered, with more haste than ceremony; and at first glance I, for my part, found myself dumb with surprise and astonishment, in the middle of a vast amphitheatre; for structure, Roman; for paint and gilding, gay as the Asiatic; four grand portals in the manner of the ancient triumphal arches, and four times twelve boxes, in a double row, with suitable pilasters between, form the interior of this wonderful fabric, save that in the middle a magnificent orchestra rises to the roof, from which descend several large branches, which contain a great number of candles enclosed in crystal glasses, at once to light and adorn this spacious Rotunda. Groups of well-dressed persons were dispersed in the boxes; numbers covered the area; all manner of refreshments were within call; and music of all kinds echoed, though not intelligibly, from every one of those elegant retreats, where Pleasure seemed to beckon her wanton followers…my eyes grew dazzled, my head became giddy, and all night I dreamed of Vanity Fair".

Possibly the crowning glory of Ranelagh was to host the finish of Regatta on the Thames in June 1775 and the admission ticket, which was engraved by Bartolozzi, became a prized collector's item. 1780 to the 1790s marked the zenith of the fashion and popularity of Ranelagh and it was visited by royalty and the nobility, with ladies of bon ton "…came swimming by you like swans" the star of which was the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire. However, in the early 19th century, it ceased to be so fashionable a destination and its demise was rapid with the building being demolished in about 1805.

Britain is fortunate in that it has an unrivalled record of topographical records compared to Europe. On the continent, major towns or cities were occasionally depicted as were important castles or palaces such as Versailles for example, but in Britain there is an abundance of engravings and paintings depicting country houses, churches, villages, towns, cities and parts of them.

The astonishing wealth of records, "There is simply nothing like this in the rest of Europe, not even after 1800, and no other country in the world has today such an efficient system of rate-supported County Record or Archive Offices which take into their care the paper history of the county" (John Harris in 'Prospects of Town and Park' - National Art-Collections Fund Exhibition, Colnaghi 1988) There were large numbers of antiquarians and there was enormous interest in recording the history and topographical
views in written and painted records. One can only surmise why this is the case; perhaps it is a deep-rooted consequence of the Domesday Book, but whatever the reason, there is an abundance of painted views and aspects of houses and urban areas.

Therefore it is rather ironic that the genre of topographical painting had really been introduced to England from Northern Europe where artists in the Netherlands had an established tradition. There are few surviving illustrations from the Tudor period although some artists from the Low Countries such as Hoefnagel in 1568 and van der Wyngaerde in 1559 did work in England. It was following the Restoration and the coronation of Charles II in 1660, marking the end of the governance of Parliament, and then, particularly after the accession of William of Orange in 1689, that the influence of art and architecture from Holland became marked in England.

The Earl of Arundel had returned from a mission to Vienna in 1636 with the Prague born artist Wenceslaus Hollar who remained here until 1644. He returned again in 1652, remaining until his death in 1677 and although most of his work survives in engraved form, he was a significant influence on English landscape painting. He managed to impart an English sensibility to the Northern European style and this can be discerned in "A View of the Thames below Wesminster Pier" now in the Barber Institute.

By the late part of the 17th century and into the 18th, artists such as Jacob Knyff, Jan Griffier, Thomas Wyck, Hendrik Danckerts and Johannes Vorsterman followed a little later by Pieter Tillemans, Jan Siberechts, Leonard Knyff and Pieter Andreas Rysbrack the Younger were in residence here and were being commissioned to paint panoramic views of country houses and estates as well as towns and views of London from the Thames. Printed guides started to appear in the early 1700s with engravings county by county and the number of architectural books published in Britain between 1715 and 1800 exceeded that of the whole of Europe in the same period. There was a seemingly almost insatiable desire to have a record of man's achievements in developing the built environment and bringing order to nature.

Joseph Nicholls, sometimes recorded as Nichols or Nickols, was one of the best of the English comparatively obscure painters of eighteenth century London views. In the 1740s topographical art in Britain received an invigorating influence from Italy, a consequence of the increasing popularity of the Grand Tour. The most famous of the Italian artists were Canaletto and Antonio Joli and the former's paintings had started to reach these shores in the late 1720s. Canaletto himself arrived in London in the summer of 1746. George Vertue, in his Notebooks in the Walpole Society writes: "…came to London from Venice the Famous Painter of Views Cannalletti …the Multitude of his works done abroad for English noblemen and Gentlemen has procurd him great reputation and his great merit and excellence in that way, he is much esteemed…" His "Whitehall and the Privy Garden from Richmond House" and "The Thames and the City of London from Richmond House", both magnificent paintings and now at Goodwood, had a marked effect.

Canaletto's paintings of "A View of Westminster from the Terrace of Somerset House" and "The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards the City" were both engraved in 1751 and there can be no doubt that these engravings acted as a further stimulus to contemporary and later artists to depict similar compositions.

The English painters Samuel Scott, William James and William Marlow picked up on this style and there were several others of varying ability such as Samuel Wale, Francis Hardin, Thomas Priest and Herbert Pugh who were commissioned to paint views of a city rapidly expanding in size, influence and wealth. There is evidence though that Scott was already painting topographical views of London before the arrival of Canaletto with a drawing of Westminster Abbey and Hall from the River in the British Museum confidently dated to 1738 providing the evidence for this. There is also speculation that some of these painters utilised a camera lucida or other such optical devices which would explain some of the occasional distorted buildings, even apparent in an artist of Scott's ability.

Joseph Nicholls preceded these more illustrious first three named artists and his pictures show a good topographical ability and feeling of atmosphere for the Thames. Grant writes of him that "…there is a delicacy and finesse in his work, unusual in this type…he displayed a capacity also for foliage and scenery."

There is comparatively little known about Nicholls. He was from Bengeo in Hertfordshire, the son of a husbandman, and is believed to have been apprenticed to the Painter-Stainer Thomas Batten on 5th August 1713. He was certainly painting London views by 1738 as two of his paintings - "Stocks Market" and "Fountain in the Temple" - were engraved in that year. Examples of his painting are in the collections of the University of Greenwich, the City of London Corporation, Gunnersbury Park Museum, National Trust (Nostell Priory) and there are a pair of views of Twickenham in the Mellon Collection at Yale, one showing Pope's Villa and the other Orlean's House, one of which is dated 1726, but which was probably painted after 1755. Another painting, "View of the Thames", is dated 1748 but these signed and dated works are scarce. Other examples of his work include "The Thames at Lambeth Palace" and "Charing Cross with the Statue of King Charles I and Northumberland House".

Nicholls also worked as an illustrator and these engravings can be seen in Captain Johnson's "Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, etc" published in 1734. There is also an oil painting depicting a capriccio Italian scene which has his signature on it which was probably a commission work in England done from another painting(s) or engraving(s).

Dictionary of British Landscape Painters - M H Grant
Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters - Ellis Waterhouse
British Landscape Painters of the 18th Century - Luke Hermann
Prospects of Town and Park - National Art Collections Fund Exhibition, Colnaghi 1988
Book Illustration in 18th Century England - Hanns Hammelmann
Old and New London Vol. V - Edward Walford


Height 51 cm / 20 14"
Width 61.3 cm / 24 14"
Framed height 66.5 cm / 26 "
Framed width 74.7 cm / 29 "

c 1726 - c 1755


Oil on canvas